posted on Mar, 26 2003 @ 09:50 PM
Military puzzled and worried about Saddam's invisible air force
THE precise location of Saddam Husseinís air force remains a key issue for coalition forces as military commanders yesterday expressed concerns that
the Iraqis may be holding back their planes for a defiant attack involving chemical weapons.
The theory appeared to be confirmed last night by the UK commander of the British Harrier force in the Gulf, who warned that the Baghdad military
regime may use their air force to launch a surprise chemical attack on coalition forces.
Group Captain Mike Harwood, 43, claimed that the decision by the Iraqi air force not to fly a single aggressive mission since hostilities began was an
ominous sign, given their involvement in a number of small mid-air battles during the last Gulf war.
Although admitting the lack of activity could be proof that the well-educated and often internationally-trained pilots had not "swallowed Saddamís
propaganda", Grp Capt Harwood claimed the Baghdad regime could be hiding aircraft away for a last-minute shock.
He said: "We havenít shot anyone down because we havenít got anyone to shoot at, so the theory we are contemplating is whether or not Saddam Hussein
is holding them as a bluff.
"At the moment, his planes are staying on the ground and are posing no threat whatsoever. But it also means he can use them later. That is the
problem with weapons of mass destruction; it only needs one man in one aeroplane and you have the potential to wipe out an awful lot of people, and
that is what is so difficult."
He added: "We are bending over backwards to cause as little damage as possible, and that includes the air force. But if the Iraqi air force moves a
muscle and look like it is going to become aggressive, we will hit it and hit it hard.
"We know they have the potential to strike as they have Russian and French planes, the Mirage F1s, which are pretty old, and MiG 23s and 25s. They
donít fly them very much but their pilots are still very much of an elite, and, considering what they have got, they do very well.
"All I know is the air force are not fighting us and we rule the skies. I hope it is because they will not fight for this regime, but it might not
be. It is true they are very well educated, the cream of the crop, and they are bright enough not to follow Saddamís propaganda.
"I have met many Iraqi pilots and I believe there are some in that horrible position of hating themselves as much as hating the regime, because just
to survive they must be seen to support him."
At the coalition Central Command in Qatar, Brigadier General Vince Brooks yesterday revealed video footage of targets, including Iraqi air force jets,
being destroyed by precision-guided missiles. The Russian- built MiGs, which had been hidden in undergrowth, were targeted despite Iraqi attempts to
prevent such an attack by hiding them next to a cemetery.
Brigadier Brooks said the hunt for what was left of Saddamís airforce was a key task.
He said: "Planes have been hidden in various places and we are doing our utmost to take them out in case the Iraqis mobilise their them."
Military experts have long claimed that while the US-led coalition will have the advantage over Iraqi forces on the ground, there will be no contest
in the air at all.
The Iraqi air force, sent to Iran before the last Gulf war to avoid destruction by the US, is now largely incorporated into the Iranian airforce,
leaving Saddam with a handful of ageing MiGs.
Analysts believe Iraqís air force now consists of about 90 fighters. According to one MoD insider, allied troops on the ground are doing all they can
to destroy what remains of Saddamís airforce to prevent chemical weapons attacks from the air.
The insider said: "Saddamís air force is always a concern but the might of our own capability in the air will always make it difficult for the Iraqis
to take to the air. We are actively searching for stores of Iraqi weapons on the ground, but our main concern includes the hunt for hidden tanks and
"We know his air force could be activated at short notice and it is our job to deny him that option, particularly as MiGs can be fitted to deploy